By Ruth Robertson, ANWF Organizer
A New Way Forward launched call-in days last week to do two things: push for structural reforms that address root causes of the crisis and dig out the backroom information that, when hidden in the dark, work all too well to kill good reforms. The call-in days are ongoing (report back here) through the last leg of passing HR 4173, the financial reform bill. Unfortunately, it seems many Congressional offices don't understand that taxpayers make their jobs possible and deserve a cooperative environment, rather than one where getting hung up on, snapped at, and unanswered is common. Members of A New Way Forward took to their phones and called elected officials in the 202 area code en masse.
It has been great to see into the political process through Congressional offices; by getting staffers on the phone and connecting with them, the process of passing the financial reform bill has felt more transparent and responsive to the American public. That's a good thing. Thus, it makes us wonder why any part of Congress thinks that they can hang up on people, create an unfriendly environment for citizen calls, send them to a voice machine, just not answer the phone, misunderstand that conferees are working on behalf of all voters through HR 4173, not just their constituents, when the calls start coming in. These staffers are a part of the political process and are paid for by taxpayer dollars. Because of the lack of the ability for there to be greater public participation in the political process, staffers over the years have not learned their role as servants of the public.
Over the phone lines, ANWF activists told politicians that we are keeping our eyes peeled for back room deals that could hinder critical financial reforms. By asking key questions about their positions on three of the most important reforms, ANWF members made it clear that any tomfoolery leading to weakened reform initiatives is unacceptable; strong reform is essential to addressing the problem of bailouts and the economic crisis.
Last week, our targets were Sens. Dodd, Lincoln, Gregg, Johnson, Reed, Schumer, Corker and Reps. Frank and Kanjorski, among other conferees throughout the week. Because of a letter sent by New Democrats to kill strong bank reforms, on Thursday, we targeted some of the U.S. Congress members on the New Democrat caucus: Representatives Gary Peters (D-MI), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Dennis Moore (D-KS), Chairman of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations.
How did these and other elected officials respond to inquiries from concerned citizens? The usual shenanigans. Their staffers ducked our calls, gave evasive answers, refused to speak to callers outright, and even hung up on one of our callers!
The good news in all of this is that insiders tell us Representative Gutierrez' office is backtracking now and saying they are NOT against Section 716 of the Senate bill, which calls for a ban on FDIC assistance to bank swaps. Instead, Rep. Gutierrez is working for a pre-fund that banks pay into before a crisis happens. We are happy to report that one of his staffers handled our inquiries in a polite and professional manner, compared to the rude treatment callers received from staffers in some other politicians' offices.
Congratulations to Mr. Gutierrez' staff for being the best of the bunch, which may not be saying much! Some of the other responses our dedicated and hard-working volunteers heard left us scratching our heads. Negligent staffer responses make elected politicians seem careless with taxpayer money.
REFUSED TO GIVE US THEIR NAME
A staffer identifying himself as Mason replied to one of our calls to Representative Moore, saying the Congressman hadn't decided his position on any of the reforms, and asked if our caller is a constituent. Another of Moore's staffers told me that he is "just Jack", and refused to give his last name!
CALL YOUR OWN OFFICE
Mason's response was a pretty typical one to our phone calls, even when we explained that this issue goes beyond local representation. Taking the opportunity to educate some staffers, ANWF member Angela said, "the spectacle of Democrats capitulating to bankers is very shocking to rank and file voters and that this will affect the willingness of Democrats to volunteer, contribute and vote for Democrats in the fall, nationwide". Great comeback, Angela! We hate it when they they pull this constituent-only stuff--as if the bill will only affect their own constituents!
When I called Representative Peters' office and introduced myself as an activist with A New Way Forward, the staffer on the other end of the line responded with anger. She said indignantly, "We have already received two calls from A New Way Forward!" I assured her that we are a grassroots organization of individual citizens very concerned about the economic health of our nation, but she insisted they should not have to answer more than once to the group. Wrong response.
Some of the responses our callers got in their attempts to reach elected leaders were odd. A staffer answering the phone at freshman Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy's office said more than once that callers from outside of central Ohio should call their "personal office". We don't believe "personal offices" are appropriate when it comes to the whole financial reform bill.
ANWF callers reported that many staffers seemed to prefer "sending people to machines", using voicemail technology to avoid responding altogether.
BE EVASIVE OR RUDE
Other aides sounded utterly bored or indifferent at best. On multiple occasions, staffers pushed aside caller concerns, telling them that they could not answer as "the conference is still ongoing".
A New Way Forward caller Peter reported that a staffer at the office of Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) got quite defensive until Peter supported his position with extensive knowledge of this issue. Peter felt that the senator's office "may be feeling quite a bit of heat". Put their feet to the fire, that's our credo, Peter!
DON'T ANSWER THE PHONES
Senator Charles Schumer's (D-NY) office was "most pleasant"--when callers were able to get through, and receptive but most callers to his office found that they could not connect. Helen and several others stayed on the line after being placed on hold by an automated voice message system, waiting for five or more minutes listening to the phone ring repeatedly only to get cut off to a buzz tone.
Lars said that is a "pretty unfortunate way to treat the public, whether by design or not: after 6 minutes of waiting on hold and hearing 2 different recorded messages from Schumer himself (which at least is an attempt to show interest in what callers have to say), I got several rings and then was disconnected."
Hopefully, Senator Schumer will get that problem fixed soon. That's not a good way to deal with citizens, Mr. Schumer!
And who's office was it that hung up on a shocked ANWF member? None other than the office of Senator Jack Reed (D-RI)!
A New Way Forward's message to our elected officials: Your staff is your public face, and if you try to blow us off as a staffer at Mary Jo Kilroy's office did in one case, or politely thank us for our comments as a staffer of Representative Peters' office did, , it all makes a difference.
If politicians are surprised about this kind of activism and they don't think we take serious note of their public face, they should know that we will call them out on their shenanigans, whether they are happening in the back rooms of Congress or in their front offices.